Paula Wilson
Plein Air

MOCA - Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson
05.14.2022 - 02.05.2023


Plein Air explores shifting ideas of western landscape, painting, and fieldwork. Traditional plein air painting, which typically involves painting outdoors in a single sitting to capture a vista in a certain quality of light, is taken as a point of departure to consider the ways in which humans use, observe, record, and commune with the land.

This group exhibition expands plein air to include contemporary works of painting, video, mapping, multidisciplinary research, and installation, that involve the act of painting outdoors.

Outdoor painting from observation lays the ground for layered portrayals of complex landscapes of personal significance. Esteban Cabeza de Baca’s paintings, often started as landscapes painted en plein air, are portals through time and to places linked to the artist’s own lived experience. Working in relation to people, plants, histories, practices, and environments, iris yirei hu uses paint, language, fiber, soil, and other organic matter to create vibrant assemblages that trace networks within a landscape. KB Jones’ plein air watercolor sketches of the oil and gas industry of Oklahoma and West Texas, a region where her family has roots, serve as studies for her large-scale painted tapestries.

Plein air is considered in the context of land surveying, settling, and use. Hillary Mushkin and her Incendiary Traces collaborators show a through line between 19th century and contemporary methods used to survey the US-Mexico border in Survey to Surveillance. Informed by research into the US Bureau of Land Management’s Standard Environmental Color chart, Susanna Battin’s Leave No Trace series poses questions around the use of paint as a tool for concealing human impact on the land.

While conventional landscape paintings look out into the distance, for Sterling Wells, whose observational watercolor paintings involve working at sites of environmental, social, and cultural confluence over extended periods of time, “this is the colonizer’s gaze. I want to depict the ground.” Paula Wilson also challenges western art historical tropes, offering an update to a painting’s creation myth, while calling attention to the act of seeing, as well as being seen.

Each artist attends to the embodied experience of being there. Outdoor painting from observation is approached as ground truth—as bearing witness—a way to experience, process, and understand a range of physical landscapes, and our relationship to them.

Plein Air is organized by guest curator Aurora Tang.
The exhibition is supported by VIA Art Fund and Wagner Foundation; Arts Foundation for Tucson and Southern Arizona; and MOCA Tucson’s Board of Trustees, Ambassador Council, and Members.

In-kind support provided by The Downtown Clifton Hotel and Barrio Brewing Company.


Paula Wilson (b.1975 Chicago, IL; based in Carrizozo, NM) is a multimedia artist whose densely layered, colorful, and often monumental works utilize a variety of painting, collage, filmic, installation, performance, and print techniques. As a Black woman born in Chicago and living in the American desert, Wilson’s multifaceted work resists a singular viewpoint. Her layering of color, image, pattern, and materials acts as a visual metaphor for the complex stratum of histories and cultures, both real and imagined, that inform her work. Wilson’s artworks are in the collections of The Studio Museum in Harlem, Yale University, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, The Rubell Family Collection, The New York Public Library, and The Albuquerque Museum. Wilson is co-founder of the artist organizations MoMAZoZo and the Carrizozo Artist in Residency.


About the Curator:

Aurora Tang is a curator and researcher based in Los Angeles. Since 2009 she has been a program manager at The Center for Land Use Interpretation. From 2011–15 she was managing director of High Desert Test Sites. Prior, she worked at non-profit art and research organizations including the Getty Research Institute and Getty Conservation Institute. She has taught at schools including Otis College of Art and Design and the University of Southern California. She is the recipient of an Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Curatorial Research Fellowship. Selected curatorial projects include exhibitions at MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Todd Madigan Gallery at California State University Bakersfield, City of West Hollywood, Materials & Applications, and the Barrick Museum at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.


Plein Air
May 14, 2022 – February 5, 2023
MOCA – Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson
265 S Church Ave, Tucson, AZ 85701

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